When I ask this question I don't mean how close are Ultras to being human, given their history that's a moot point, i mean how close are we in real life to being something similar to them.
For those that don't know Eiji Tsuburya was a converted Catholic, he was christian and while this may be my own theories think for a moment. Ultras are 'beings of light" and what do we get when we think past them, what else you do think about when you hear that term, that's right angels. In fact it is theorized that the Specium Ray's hand positions were intentionally trying to mimic the Christian Cross. So in that sense Ultras are angelic beings, and to quote several people whose names I can't remember "Man is half way between an angel and a beast". That is to say, when we get past our own failings we can do and come up with wonderful, incredible things.
So Ultras are like angels, a possibility we could theoretically achieve, the fact that they are in a sci-fi series makes them all the more relatetable. The Ultras were once human like themselves before they evolved, but for some bright light to change them when it instead kills an Earthling implies there were differences. Let's look at what we have in common with them and where we need to catch up. Get ready to learn and a rather long read.
The Ultras' human like ancestors were obviously more advance than us, with their Type One Civilization (A world encompassing Civilization with complete control over it's planet's resources. Thank you Michael Kaku for the term) Let's look at some things we can theorize about their genetic differences.
Solar Powered/ Radiation resistance
They were most likely could deal with electromagnetic radiation better than us, the light changed them because they were able to survive the intensity. One theory is they could've been solar powered like their descendants, that is to say their bodies took in sunlight and used it to make food, we do something similar to make Vitamin D. Think that's strange, if you watched the 'Science of Superman' documentary you would know that there are actually people researching that right now, in theory all it would take is a change in your genetic expression, not an alteration to you DNA, just think of Genes having an on/of switch. As humans we have the same gene in our bodies as monkeys that says our bodies should be covered in thick hair, but it is turned of for the most part. When it is turned on, you have a case of Lycanthropy Syndrome (No, these people don't howl at the moon, their just hairy).
Immunity to diseases and Long Lifespans
Another thing is that the Ultras' ancestors were most likely long lived like Time Lords (They could live a really long!) and resistant to diseases. In the Ultraman Story 0 manga, the Ultras gained their powers ten thousand years prior to the first series not twenty six hundred. Meaning many of the Ultra brothers were alive, human and several thousand years old, despite still being considered young men. Here on Earth people have figured out that our aging is caused by certain proteins important to our bodies and have had somewhat success in initial trials on invertebrate lifeforms using chemicals to control it.
There are also scientists working to make it so we can correct the genetic faults and weaknesses that make us vulnerable to diseases. From a genetic scanning of your DNA you can learn what diseases you resistant and most vulnerable to. Imagine a world where we can live two centuries and not worry about cancer.
On to what people really want to talk about, the super powers, let's ignore flight and size changing, flight is theoretically possible and Size Change implies physics we haven't even come up with yet. Those out of the way we have super strength, energy beams, and mental abilities. So let's think of this like the Ultraman Factor from the 2011 Manga as something we can compare against, instead of trying to compare directly to giants of light. Let's look at the strength and particle energy of the Ultraman factor but also mental abilities since they are not that hard to compare to.
The strength and durability of the bearers of the Ultraman factor is impressive but technically not impossible. Let us assume the Ultras come from a much heavier planet (Planet Ultra now is sixty times the mass of Earth). No matter where you are, your body has to follow the laws of physics, so a creature born on Earth has to be strong enough to at least stand, same thing on any other planet. The greater the gravity the greater the strength needed to JUST stand. At sixty times Earth gravity you would weigh sixty times your current mass. The average male weighs 170 pounds, then on the Ultra Star he would weigh 10200 pounds. Now imagine muscles made for moving 10200 pounds, moving an object that weighs 170, (note this was similar to how Superman's powers were first explained, before he could fly and had all the other extra powers).
There's also muscle fibers, people have been looking at our genetic code to see if we could make our selves stronger. I don't know how that is going but think of this, natural evolution, every so often people are breaking track records and pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible. There are men who, with great effort and concentration, move a bus or fire truck by themselves.
Also let's not forget the actual explanation for their strength, natural steroids, it has been stated an Ultra can generate natural steroids in their body to enhance their strength, given the fact they can stand upright in giant form these chemicals must be very powerful. We as humans have something similar, Testosterone, which helps in building muscle and getting stronger. Both men and women produce this, but for obvious reasons men produce more, the same way women produce more Estrogen then men. There is also adrenaline, a hormone we produce during the Fight-or-Flight response (Fear, usually when we need to defend ourselves) and hysterical strength ( when we have an emotionally outburst, usually at the sight of a loved one in trouble), Old women have lifted cars of theirs sons, dainty little women have beaten of large bikers, a physically unfit man has outrun police and dogs. When we need to we can summon great strength from ourselves, though perhaps not at will.
Ultras clearly run on light, their inner light is a universal trait for all of them, we here at the wiki have stated and posted several theories about that but Tsuburya has given us no credible explanation for it (probably for the best, the mystery is what makes it magical). However, there are some things we know, in Ultraman Nexus it is stated that Nexus runs on Photo-electrons (a fact they used to recharge him and save the day), so let's look at it. How does this equate to the particle energy we know the Ultras use. That's simple, Electrons are the cloud that make up outer layer all conventional matter, is it such a stretch that using this energy they could produce the particles in their body for their beams, after all, it was stated in Nexus that the energy was used for 'particle construction' or something along those lines which created the Ultimate Vanisher which used the same energy as Nexus, was a destructive beam or a flow of energy that recharged the Ultra.
Also note something, Superman, in recent years had the explanation for his powers changed, instead of gravity (though that was sometimes kept in the explanation but to a now lesser degree) it was stated his body was photo-voltaic (think a solar battery) and changed the sunlight into energy for his bio-field, or more specifically his Bio-electric field. Your bio-electric field is the electric field that not only holds your cells and your body together, but also represents you body's neural activity and biological functions. In theory an injury and weakness would be translated to a weakness or collapse in the fields structural integrity, even aging. A similar explanation was used in the game series Infamous to explain superpowers.
This photo-electron energy implies that the Ultras' bio-field is heavily based on photons instead of just electron charges (the bases of conductivity) which makes sense since they are beings of light. If one bio-field were suddenly increased like that it could have drastic affects on their body, they could become healthier, stronger, a higher energy content in their body has been theorized to be a symptom of what many would call superpowers. With such a biology it's no wonder Ultras could fire their destructive beams and other rays which are described as techniques. (Note the difference of a technique and an ability, an ability is a biological function or capability you are flexing, a technique is a logical application of such functions and capabilities. Kicking or punching is an ability, how you do it is your technique)
Also note, the presence of such energy, particle and/or photo-electron energy would have effects on your body, perhaps making you superhuman. Please note, the act of sticking your hand in a socket etc, is not going to change your bio-field's density, your body was only made to hold a certain amount of voltage, you would most likely just end up killing yourself, stupidly I may add.
People have being theorizing mental abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis long before Tsuburya was even born, hypnotists to mediums, the would-be god-men in India today to stage magicians in the west, there is no shortage of those who claimed such abilities.
In America alone many people believe in at least the possibility of Psychic abilities, during the cold war, the Soviets spent large amounts of resources into such research to no avail. Does this mean that psychic abilities are nothing but a hoax. Well to be honest I believe in the possibility of some psychic abilities and here are my reasons.
During a documentary on Ninjas, one of the rumored abilities they were trying to judge was the Ninja's mythical sixth sense, their rumored ESP. To test this they had an exercise where Special Forces were conducting a training exercise in a building. Miles away, they got several people in a room and told them about what was going on and said to envision the event going on. They didn't know where it was, and what they did was draw several features they saw when they meditate. Did they draw the house? No, but when they were taken to the sight, several, if not most of their drawings matched features and points in the building, they even drew a hall way from the point of view of entering it, including the window in the distance. So maybe ESP isn't bogus, perhaps we humans have untapped potential in what we could do, especially if we were solar powered and ran on Photo Electrons, our nervous systems would be much stronger. Why is that important? What else would be using to do this stuff, paranormal explanations aside. The Documentary was on Ninjas and was on the National Geographic Channel. You can probably buy it online or find it on the web, especially in this Youtube Age.
During another documentary, this one directly on Psychic powers and the Soviet's research into them, a woman in Russia claimed to have been a part of the research to prove this she moved a pencil. She didn't levitate it in the air, she placed it on a table, put her hand parallel to it and pushed it away, the pencil stood a few inches away from her hand at all times during this. When asked to explain, she stated that focused all of her energy into her hand, the experience, she said, left her feeling exhausted. When the feat was done under lab conditions it was found that nerves in her hand were giving of a greater voltage than what was previously thought possible, explaining her tired state after. She may not have been able to do much or even raise it into the air, she had also trained her entire life to do this feat, she was an old woman so think about that. If it wasn't for that last part were actual science came in, I doubt I would've believed her today. The real point is she showed a proof of concept for what we could describe as Telekinesis. Where she like superman, solar powered, she could've probably done more, but she was a mortal, human being. The documentary was on Psychic research and/or abilities, most likely during the cold war, it was a while when I watched it, but it shouldn't be hard to find on Youtube. It was on the discovery channel.
Beyond the things spoken of above, there is another topic that has to be considered when it comes to comparing ourselves to the Ultras, that appearance wise. To be honest we don't look anything like them if go to the Residents of the Land of Light page you can see that their internal structure is similar to ours. In Ultraman Great, he was scanned and stated to be 'almost human' and even theorized to be a cyborg. Let's think about that, many times, features on the Ultras' bodies have been described not as organs but technology, the Armed Nexus of Nexus, the Mebium Brace, the Max Spark, even the famous Color Timer has now been revealed to been surgically installed device, their is also the Ultra Armor, the very skin of Ultras is described as something worn and given the appearance of the Next, it is likely it is. Now think about that, that parts of an Ultra are technological in nature. Obviously no one has to install their skin and the Armed Nexus appear to be a part of Ultraman Nexus. So what is the answer. My theory goes to genetics, that Ultra naturally have parts of their anatomy that are more similar to technology than what we considered, conventional organics. Today we are attaching robotic replacements for limbs, we are working on contact lenses that work like personal computers, chips in our clothes to alert the proper authorities when we in trouble etc. No what if thousands, millions of years down the line, we are so attune to our technology we naturally grow it, what if we had fiber optic nerves, photo-voltaic skin, muscles and bones with natural carbon fibers, we accessed the internet mentally (goodbye school!).
The skin of an Ultra, until Ultraman the Next no one did more but wonder about the Ultra armor and just saw it as skin, the kind we have, but the primitive form of Noa showed, or at least heavily implied, it was a secondary layer. Ultra Skin, is commonly stated to be resistant to fire and lasers ( they can survive their own beams which are generally one shot kills). In other universes, Ultras do not have the Showa weakness to the cold. Also Ultras have been affected by gases, pollen etc, implying they breath. Their ability to survive in space implies the Skin is a sort of natural space suit. Imagine if we were born with our own environmental suit, no need for clothes (Ultra feet look a lot like boots in several cases) and we could change fashions (If you don't get it go watch Tiga and/or Cosmos). Such suits would allow us to survive in almost any environment and act as natural armor.
The eyes of Ultras is notorious for being superior to ours, many times Ultras have seen far into space, through objects (Dan Moroboshi) and in the dark. Even on Earth their are creatures like hawks that can see across miles easily. Let's also note that the Original Ultraman was stated to be able to see across the entire EM spectrum, from Gamma Rays to Infrared. We have cameras that can do this and given the other abilities mentioned in this piece, this one is the least difficult to replicate.
The Color Timer
The famous Color Timer, going along with the idea the Ultra Armor is an evolved form of clothing, then the color timer is analogous with the idea of chips installed in your clothes. Today scientists are working to create tiny chips in your clothes that monitor you health and call the authorities when you are hurt of gravely ill. Now one may wonder why they would need such a thing if they are such an evolved creature like an Ultra, but tell me, can you see cancer polyps in your intestine, would you even want to look? Also the color timer is for measuring energy levels, it alerts the user to a problem they otherwise would not be aware of until it was too late.
What does the Light mean/ What do Ultras represent for us?
Now when asking how close we are to Ultras, the next logical question is, what are Ultras to us? This is just my personal theory/belief and you are free to make your own choice. To answer this question I will look at the theme of Light as presented in Ultraman Tiga, a series where I found more similarities between Ultras and the classical idea of Angels
Light Versus Dark
In Tiga, light has been used to represent several things that are not spelled out. Tiga is a being of light, and Daigo, fighting as Tiga fights for humanity's future, our future. Iruma once stated that she believed Tiga could guide mankind into a prosperous future (this was before she knew he was Daigo but aside the point) in contrast stood the Kilaliens, devils, beings of darkness who sought to force mankind to bow down and worship them. In short they were what the Bible would call false Idols/False Prophets/ False Shepards, they wanted to lead mankind astray and away from a BRIGHT future where they are free. In contrast the Ultras never interfered in human choice, Tiga was unique because he was part human as Daigo and had that right, something Yazure counted on. No more were these themes emphasized then the second time when the Kilaliens attacked, using the image of an angel to lead people astray and reject Tiga. However, instead of bashing on religion, the episode took to the time to show Tiga, a being of Light to be basically 'touched by God' via a rather iconic scene. Showing him to be more Divine than the self-proclaimed angels due to his actions not his powers, something many humans remembered causing them to run to his aide.
Daigo also fought other beings of Darkness, such as the Vampire Monster Kyuraus who wanted to enslave mankind with his vampire army. There was also the Dark God Gatanozoa, named after the son of Cthulu of Lovecraftian lore. In this instance, the children of mankind, the future of the world took up arms for their future, using Tiga as a conduit in the form of Glitter Tiga to battle the darkness that threatened it.
A less malicious being of darkness was Obiko, who wanted to force the people of his village to revert to the time before electricity and night lights when they still remembered him. He was trying to force mankind to revert back and trying to halt their advance. In the end understanding he couldn't have back his old village and he couldn't live in this new world he left himself open from a fatal blow. While not evil, not truly, he represented those that impede progress for their own selfish reasons as well as clinging to the past instead of trying to adapt to the present and hoping for a better future.
Daigo also was very concerned about his humanity, concerned his Ultra powers detracted from that, it was his humanity that brought peace where his powers could not, such as with Adam and Eve, two evolved dinosaurs being used by evil aliens. In contrast was Keigo Masaki, an arrogant greedy man who wanted Ultra powers for the sake of it and who corrupted his Ultra counterpart into Evil Tiga an evil giant. Another example was Tiga Dark, when forced to use the original dark form of Tiga, Daigo was unable and/or unwilling to tap into the full dark power of the form due to his choice of the light, ultimately resulting in restoring Tiga's light form.
The light can also represent our potential as a species, Daigo stated after his last battle 'All humans can become beings of light' and Yuzare similarly stated that the 'light was in everyone'. Maxima Overdrive was an engine that used the annihilation effect of matter/anti-matter to generate propulsion, it's only exhaust was pure light particles. In the English dub (for all it faults it got this right) it was clearly stated that light is the cleanest source of energy in the universe, which may be correct given our use of solar energy. This also ties in with the idea that Light represents our future as it also implies light represents clean energy, a balance with nature. Note that in the first episode, it was stated the world was at peace and our damage to the environment was being undone.
It was also stated that Maxima Overdrive was a predicted technology and the robots (It is stated outside the show that they were sent by the Kilaliens) were drawn to it and declared it a forbidden power. While their masters were unknown it was stated that their masters were just trying to impede the progress of other civilizations, they wanted to limit human potential.
Now this is the part where I step away from Tiga and look at the Ultras as whole. In designing the first Ultra, it was stated the Grey Alien archetype was used and if you look at Ultraman and many of the later Ultras, you can see it. Why is this important? It has been theorized by some psychologists that abduction stories are purely psychological episodes/dreams and that the image of the Greys are something pulled out of our subconscious. They are said to represent a possible future for us as a species, how we subconsciously see ourselves as a species becoming. We rarely use our sense of smell so our nose is gone, we rely heavily on our eyes so they are bigger, were smarter so our heads are bigger, and we are so dependent on technology that our bodies have shriveled from atrophying (degenerating from lack of use). Ultras can be seen as an alternate path to this. Like them they have no nose (mostly), their eyes are larger and their heads are mainly oval meaning they have larger brain casings, but instead of being physically weak, they are physically stronger than us, using their technology to transcend many human limitations. In the end I suppose Ultras are like Angels, besides being, beings of light, they represent the better part of our natures and what we can and probably should, strive to be and individuals and a species.